Hans Blix advocates Middle East free of a nuclear weapons threat

The Middle East should become an "enrichment- and reprocessing-free zone" with all countries buying uranium from the international market, said the Swede.

United Arab Emirates - Dubai - Nov. 24, 2008:

Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission chair Hans Blix prepares to address the audience during the ECSSR 14th Annual Energy Conference: Nuclear Energy in the Gulf (cq-al) at The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi on Monday, Nov. 24, 2008. Amy Leang/The National  

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ABU DHABI // The Middle East should become an "enrichment- and reprocessing-free zone" with all countries buying uranium from the international market, said Hans Blix, the chairman of the Stockholm-based Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. Mr Blix argued that the proposal could offer a solution to security concerns in the region and would be in the best interest of Arab nations.

He also said diplomatic solutions to the Iranian nuclear problem are far from being exhausted. The idea of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East has been around for decades, originally proposed by Iran to the UN General Assembly in 1974 amid concerns over Israel's weapons programme. Mr Blix, however, thinks the idea should be expanded. "It's not really enough to have a zone free of nuclear weapons, because that will affect Israel, but it doesn't really affect Iran," he said. "For the moment the worry is that Iran is developing enrichment capabilities that will bring them closer to a nuclear weapon, so I think that the scope of this idea of a zone should be broadened and comprise also a zone free from enrichment and reprocessing."

Though the UAE was willing to sign away its right to enrich uranium, there is no economic advantage in enriching domestically. Others might be less willing to back any such proposal even if, as Mr Blix argued, it is in their security interests. Jordan, which has large natural uranium deposits, said it would be "unacceptable" to give up its right to enrich under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Israel is likely to be the most stalwart opponent.

Mr Blix argued that countries that pursue nuclear arms do so because of "perceived security threats" so security guarantees could provide some kind of assurance to Tehran. He said he believed more "carrots" rather than "sticks" are necessary to persuade Iran to cease enrichment. Negotiators over the years have offered to go as far as assisting Iran in its nuclear programme if it agrees to give up domestic enrichment and reprocessing, and have assured Iran of a supply of light-water fuel reactors for such a programme. But he said more bargaining chips are available.

"All these things are positive but evidently have not been enough to persuade the Iranians that they should abstain from enrichment," he said. "There are two points which, as far as I can discover, the outside world has not yet offered to Iran. First, a guarantee against any attack, perhaps confirmed by the UN Security Council, that there would be no attempt to attack them and no attempt at subversion. Second would be the restoration of diplomatic relations" with the US.

With no diplomatic relations with the US since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, offering restoration could be a valuable bargaining tool, Mr Blix said. "I think it would be accepted. The question is whether it would be enough." lmorris@thenational.ae